Che Guevara Rohana Wijeweera and the 1971 Youth Insurrection | Sunday Observer

Che Guevara Rohana Wijeweera and the 1971 Youth Insurrection

26 March, 2023

I realised even if someone goes on a violent path to achieve a good goal, it can be done with humanity. I explained to them that killing innocents and allowing those who oppress society to remain is not a true revolution. I explained to them that when our young men and women understand that the existing situation, be it philosophical, technical or structural, can be changed in 100 percent non-violent ways, real democracy and real equality will be created.

During the camps we held in the late ’60s and particularly in 1970, I noticed a strange phenomenon. Each time we held family meet ups at our camps, I noticed a group of around ten youth hanging around, not participating, but instead closely watching the happenings. My curiosity was piqued having witnessed the same in many towns including Hambantota, Monaragala, Kegalle and Anuradhapura.

I relayed the information to the Government including Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, other politicians I knew personally, the IGP and other heads of security. I warned them that an unprecedented situation is emerging among the rural youth in the country. I also expressed this view to the Editor of the Daily News at the time among others. I even published an opinion piece on the Lankadeepa claiming a mentality of violence was being fostered among the youth.

During this time David, the office assistant at Nalanda College where I was teaching back then came to my class to inform me that a principal was at the school to meet me. It turned out to be Halpe, the principal of the Battaramulla Central College. With tears in his eyes he claimed the students have become uncontrollable. He said a small group of students had taken over the labs, teachers quarters and even classrooms with the support of other students and causing serious harm. Despite using many tactics, he said the teachers had failed to bring the situation under control and therefore decided to approach Sarvodaya in search of help.

Senior students

Rohana Wijeveera

He agreed to my request to speak to the teachers and students. On the date scheduled I visited the school with several senior students of Nalanda College. As I entered the school I was devastated at what I witnessed. While the students had gathered in the main hall, the hooting and jeering after my entrance lasted for nearly 30 minutes. The students prevented the principal from speaking. But taking my chance during a rare moment of silence I began to speak. They all fell silent and listened though several students stood up and left. Following a speech of one hour, I managed to get the students to agree to hold a camp during the weekend and reform the school in its entirety. We were able to give the school a new look in two days. But what was most important was to ensure a change in the students.

After the camp, it was decided that a seminar will be held on Mahatma Gandhi and an exhibition for the students. The Principal, overjoyed by the results, invited the Secretary to the Ministry of Education as its Chief Guest. Prior to this arrival, other esteemed guests including the Principal of Royal College, Bogoda Premaratne, the Principal of Ananda College M.W Karunananda, the Principal of Prince of Wales College Dharmasena Arampatta and the Principal of Wesley College Shelton Weerasinghe had taken their seats on the mats laid out on the floor.

The Secretary arrived. As the Principal introduced me, he said ‘Ah, the Shramadana Karaya’ and looked displeased as he was shown to his seat on the floor of the stage. Following many important speeches, the gist of his speech is as follows.

“The children in the far off roof tiled houses must be attending schools such as Royal, Ananda and Nalanda while the children in thatched houses must be attending this school. That is the problem in this country. The gap between the haves and have nots -the class-divide. All these shramadanas are useless unless this is eradicated through a class struggle,” he said.

The adults and the students were shocked and dismayed by the speech. In my vote of thanks I explained the non-violent and creative struggle we are engaging in to eradicate the gap between the haves and have-nots to ensure the children do not once again choose a path of violence. This incident took place in late 1970. I had no doubt that bloodshed and the deaths of youth were imminent. But I understood that attempting to make short-sighted and selfish politicians and officials who were living in the lap of luxury at the people’s expense was a futile attempt. Therefore, my aim was to safeguard the youth and over 300 Sarvodaya villages from the emerging threat.

I took steps to create awareness among the leaders of the 300 villages through our full-time staffers. The final meeting was held in Vavuniya on March 30, 1971.

Awareness campaign

Addressing the meeting I said, “Our so-called political leaders and bureaucrats who do not have any sense of nationalism have created the background needed for a violent rebellion in our country. All that is left now is to light a match to the fuel at any moment. From the day Sarvodaya was founded, till today, it has been working hard to show the way to build a just society - through non-violent means. Due to the blindness of the privileged, they did not properly see the action we launched for education, development and peace. Now, all we can do is to ensure peace in our villages, and protect the youth and those who work with Sarvodaya full time”.

Prior to the insurrection, I made many attempts to meet Rohana Wijeweera. I intended to convince him that many lives could be saved if he gave up violence and took up a path of non-violence instead of carrying out his struggle. However, I was only able to meet him after his imprisonment.

While Wijeweera wrote to me seeking help, I was careful to assist him only in accordance with the law due as it had been suggested at the Security Council that I too must be arrested. My arrest was only thwarted due to the stiff resistance to the proposal by IGP Stanley Senanayake and the Army Commander.

I provided those imprisoned with around 80 books in my possession as well as clothes and toiletries. I visited Wijeweera due to his repeated requests. I was able to visit him and engage in conversation for nearly an hour during which I attempted to convince him to take a path of non-violence.

Not a single youth of the Sarvodaya movement was arrested in 1971. I am pleased we were able to safeguard their lives. The 371 Sarvodaya villages also escaped any violence during the time.

While I have many personal experiences of the time, there is one thing that must be said. That is our leaders must understand that the temporary suppression of violence by violence itself does not remove the factors that caused the problem.

Che Guevera’s photograph

On one occasion, IGP Stanley Senanayake and DIG T.B. Werapitiya visited me at home. Seeing a photograph of Che Guevara displayed they both looked alarmed. I asked them not to be alarmed and said I took the image out of storage to prove that the insurrection is not a Che Guevara movement. In fact, I told them it was an insult to him.

I told them of a meeting I had with Che Guevara in Belgium nearly two years prior and the conversation I had with him. Recalling the incident I told them how Che and I were invited by the University of Liège to deliver speeches. I was told I must speak on the non-violent revolution while he will speak on the violent revolution.

I was ushered to a room where a man with a long beard and overgrown hair was seated. Seeing me, he rose and hugged me tight. He said, “Comrade Ari, I was impatiently awaiting your arrival to meet you.”

I told him how though our aims are similar, there was a difference in the means we used to achieve its end. “You are the most violent guerilla leader,” I told him. In response, Che said this was a notion created by imperialists. He said his initial intention was to cure leprosy but realised how the elite had caused millions of Latin Americans to live in poverty.

“Realising the cause, I destroyed Batista’s army with Castro. During the fight, I had no hatred for enemy soldiers. They were disarmed and treated for their wounds. Therefore, do not believe in the rumours that I am a vicious killer. I tried to destroy the wrong and not those who were committing it,” he said.

I realised even if someone goes on a violent path to achieve a good goal, it can be done with humanity. I explained to them that killing innocents and allowing those who oppress society to remain is not a true revolution. I explained to them that when our young men and women understand that the existing situation, be it philosophical, technical or structural, can be changed in 100 percent non-violent ways, real democracy and real equality will be created.

In the first week of April in 1971, a group of representatives from the Sarvodaya Movement in Belgium visited Sri Lanka and insisted they wanted to visit the Kumbukgollawa village. However, due to the then situation I attempted to discourage them but they were adamant. Therefore, I facilitated their visit. It was during this that the April insurrection was launched. There was no information about the group. Two weeks later they managed to return safely and related the situation they faced.

Narrow escape

The group had been guided to the Anuradhapura - Puttalam road by villagers in the belief those involved in the insurrection will visit the village at any given moment. Arriving in the village just an hour later, armed youth had fired a shot and inquired where the Americans that visited the village were. After being told the foreigners had left, the youth had left only to encounter a Police jeep. They had been instantly shot dead by the Police.

The group had been transported to Puttalam and suffered for days before managing to return to Meth Madura in Moratuwa two weeks later. I later held a special family meeting to thank the person who ensured their safety.

However, I was worried for the safety of M. Somaratne, a full time worker from the Halmillewa centre belonging to us. He had remained there and returned only after the violence subsided. I was relieved to see him, but also demanded to know why he had not informed us of his whereabouts. To this he responded “Sir, in a situation such as this the best thing is to keep silent, remain where you are and do something that is productive.”

In fact I was greatly relieved that the lives of our full- timers were safeguarded during the turbulent time.